Court to explore competency claim of ailing Ala. inmate

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in the case of an inmate sentenced to death for killing an officer in 1985 but who can no longer remember the murder


Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in the case of an inmate sentenced to death for killing an Alabama police officer in 1985 but who lawyers say can no longer remember the murder because of stroke-induced dementia.

Justices will decide if it would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute Vernon Madison, 68, because of the mental declines he has experienced resulting from strokes. Madison was convicted of killing Mobile police officer Julius Schulte in 1985.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said death row prisoners must have "rational understanding" that they are about to be executed and why.

This undated file photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Vernon Madison. (Alabama Department of Corrections, via AP, File)
This undated file photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Vernon Madison. (Alabama Department of Corrections, via AP, File)

Attorneys for Madison say he has an IQ score of 72, suffers from vascular dementia and memory loss as a result of brain damage from several strokes and "does not remember the crime for which he has been convicted and does not have a rational understanding of why the state of Alabama seeks to execute him."

"The execution of Vernon Madison consequently is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment's essential commitment to human dignity," attorney Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative wrote.

Madison's lawyers in court filings described him as a physically and mentally frail man who attended a competency hearing in a wheelchair. They say he is incontinent, legally blind, frequently confused, can no longer recite the alphabet and repeatedly asks for his deceased mother to visit him.

A state court in 2016 ruled that Madison was competent. A neuropsychologist hired by the defense team said that Madison has no independent recollection of the murder. A court-appointed psychologist found that while Madison had suffered a mental and physical decline, he was able to recall details of his case and appeals.

The Alabama attorney general's office cast doubt on the defense description of Madison's mental state in court filings. They argued he claimed as far back as 1990 to have amnesia about the murder and that the court-appointed expert concluded he could recall and understood many details about his life, trial and looming death sentence.

But ultimately, the state argued the Eighth Amendment doesn't prohibit executing someone who lost can't remember their crime.

"It's not that he has to have a perfect memory. The question is whether he understands the crime that he committed as well as understands why he's being punished. I think it's pretty clear on both fronts that he does," Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall told The Associated Press.

Marshall said Madison had "executed" Schulte. Prosecutors said Madison crept up behind Schulte's car and shot him in the head. Schulte had been at the scene protecting Madison's former girlfriend and her daughter as they moved out of the house.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the case will explore the impact of a health condition that affects memory and cognition on an inmate's rational understanding of his death sentence.

"What's interesting here is you have a unique set of facts that make Vernon Madison potentially incompetent, an aging defendant who was border line competent beforehand who then has suffered a series of strokes that has both physical and mental effects," Dunham said.

The 33-year-old case has had a winding legal road

Madison was tried three times for Schulte's murder after the first two convictions were tossed, once because of excluding black jurors and a second time for the admission of improper testimony. After his third conviction, a jury recommended life imprisonment, but a judge imposed the death penalty. Alabama law no longer allows judges to override a jury's recommended sentence in capital cases, but the law is not retroactive.

Madison has twice gotten stays from appellate courts before scheduled execution dates. The Supreme Court in January stayed Madison's scheduled lethal injection to consider whether to review Madison's competency claim.

The retirement of former Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was a part of the court that agreed to consider the case, means that the arguments will be heard by eight justices and makes it less clear if there is a majority to be found for Madison. Madison will need five votes to reverse the state court finding that he is competent. That means, Dunham said, that Madison will need the votes of the four more liberal members of the court plus "one of the conservative justices on the court has to be persuaded."

Associated Press
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